From left, David, Taylor and Gordon Sutton pose in front of a Tiger Fuel-branded semi truck.
From left, David, Taylor and Gordon Sutton. Credit: Courtesy

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In most places, climate activists ferreting out businesses willing to embrace solar power wouldn’t likely place a company named Tiger Fuel at the top of their list.

But it’s a different tale in Charlottesville. 

Not only is Gordon Sutton, president of the family-owned petroleum distributor, going solar by adding rooftop panels to Tiger Fuel’s chain of convenience stores and gas stations. He also is growing solar by purchasing Altenergy, the Charlottesville-based developer who designed and installed those arrays.

“The fossil fuel landscape is changing,” Sutton said in an interview. “As it evolves, I view this as an opportunity to strengthen our company and provide new jobs.

“If people trust us to provide the energy of the past, I hope they’ll do the same as we now provide the energy of the future.”

The far-from-typical acquisition was announced Wednesday in tandem with the Community Climate Collaborative’s rollout of its ambitious Green Business Alliance. 

Charlottesville-based C3 recruited Tiger Fuel and 15 other high-profile ventures committed to sharply chopping their emissions of heat-trapping gases by 45% over the next five years. Each participant begins with a different baseline.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam joined the ceremonial launch of the alliance on the Charlottesville campus of Sentara Martha Jefferson Hospital, the largest — in size and carbon footprint — of the 16-member collective. All have roots in central Virginia.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam speaks at a press conference announcing the Community Climate Collaborative’s new Green Business Alliance. Credit: Tom Cogill / C3 / Courtesy

The bold undertaking is not some willy-nilly, feel-good campaign by a grassroots group. C3 first reached out to business leaders 18 months ago, selecting only those with serious intent. A prerequisite of alliance membership was allowing C3 analysts to pore over three years of utility and transportation fleet bills, to deduce where and how energy savings could be maximized.  The nonprofit became a de facto chief sustainability adviser.    

“We’re doing the math because what gets measured, gets done,” C3 Executive Director Susan Kruse said in an interview prior to the official rollout. “We all have obstacles. Our question is, how do we overcome them?” 

The alliance also includes for-profits Carter Myers Automotive, Indoor Biotechnologies, Red Light Management, WillowTree, Harvest Moon Catering, Quantitative Investment Management and accounting firm Hantzmon Wiebel; clean energy developers Apex Clean Energy, Sigora Solar and Sun Tribe Solar; and nonprofits The Center, Legal Aid Justice Center and CFA Institute.

C3 was adamant about crafting a program centered on smaller businesses because those with up to 500 employees are the backbone of Virginia’s workforce. They are crucial players if Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County are to slice planet-warming emissions 45% (relative to 2011) by 2030.

“This is not just marketing,” Kruse said. “These folks are leaders and have strong reputations in the community. They didn’t want to say they were going to be able to do something on climate and then not do it. They are accountable and take these commitments seriously.”

What attracted the governor to appear in person is the likelihood that Charlottesville leaders voicing support for climate pledges could influence their peers to duplicate the model statewide.

“It’s definitely a collaboration,” Kruse said. “We haven’t given them marching orders.”

She is well aware that many communities are hamstrung on climate action because well-intentioned and well-researched commitments never become doable plans.

Researchers from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank, documented that shortcoming in an October “Pledges and Progress” report. Their analysis of 2017 data revealed that of the 100 most populous U.S. cities, only 45 had established greenhouse gas reduction targets and corresponding baseline inventories. Charlottesville is too small to be included in that study.

To keep participants on track with goals, C3 is issuing each business individualized reports and updating them annually.

“We’re about relationship-building and building trust,” Kruse said, adding that it’s not every day that businesses share their energy bills with a climate organization. “We’re honored that they’re allowing us to help.”

‘It’s time — let’s do it’

Gordon Sutton admits that it was a hassle to dig through banker boxes in a warehouse to unearth the piles of utility bills that C3 requested.

“But I didn’t want to let them down because I believe in what they’re doing,” he said about Kruse and her colleagues. “I’m hopeful that the alliance will demonstrate to other business leaders that if we can do it, they can, too.”

The 42-year-old is sometimes astounded at how Tiger Fuel has progressed since his attorney father, David, convinced a client to buy a “rinky-dink” oil distributor four decades ago. As teens, Gordon and his younger brother, Taylor, pumped gas, checked oil, and cleaned windshields as the company morphed beyond service stations and fuel delivery.

Both brothers figured those days were in their rearview mirrors after they earned degrees at the University of Virginia and headed West for more academics, a range of jobs, and immersion in the wilds of Wyoming and Colorado.

By 2009, Gordon was back in Charlottesville and working at the same fuel business his father was then turning into a Sutton family business. Taylor followed suit two years later. They immersed themselves into its intricacies. When David retired in 2017, Gordon became president and Taylor, chief operations officer.

Today, Tiger Fuel distributes heating oil and propane gas and the brothers oversee a network of gas stations, car washes and convenience stores.

Perhaps it’s not too shocking that Gordon, a history major who also earned a Master of Business Administration, and Taylor, an environmental science major, started conversing with solar specialists about five years ago. They figured arrays would be a good fit when the price on panels and federal tax credits aligned to fit their finances.

By 2018, the investment made sense.

“It’s time — let’s do it,” Gordon Sutton said about the 17.5 kilowatts Altenergy installed atop one store and two canopies sheltering gas pumps late that year. “Solar will be received well by our customers and it’s a smart way to differentiate ourselves.”

That initial transaction, however, was just the tip of the proverbial panel. The Sutton brothers, intent on diversifying, studied solar assiduously. Gordon admits to being somewhat surprised in 2018 when Altenergy was receptive to his queries about forming a partnership. 

Fast forward to March 2020. Just as the coronavirus pandemic started to dominate everybody’s bandwidth, Altenergy and Tiger Fuel signed an acquisition agreement.

“COVID could have very easily killed the deal,” Sutton said. “It was scary and kind of a miracle that everyone kept cool heads.”

Tiger Fuel’s purchase of Altenergy’s Charlottesville presence and its five branches in Staunton, Virginia; Idaho; Michigan; and Maryland/Washington, D.C., means the Suttons will be adding 50 solar employees to their workforce of 300. Altenergy, founded in 2004, has completed 1,700-plus solar projects totaling at least 42 megawatts. 

Soon, another 500 kilowatts will bedeck a mix of car washes, canopies, stores and one bulk facility. Tiger Fuel would do 100% coverage, but not all canopies can support the load and the company doesn’t own the real estate at all 11 stores.

Hospital weighing renewable options

The Biden administration is in the midst of setting lofty climate goals and Virginia has surprised many longtime observers with its efforts to rein in emissions in the transportation and power sectors with Clean Cars Virginia and the Virginia Clean Economy Act. 

A separate General Assembly bill Northam signed into law changes the name of the Commonwealth Energy Policy to the Commonwealth Clean Energy Policy. That might seem insignificant, but Sen. Barbara Favola’s measure only strengthens successful legislation she shepherded through last year that modernized a policy with too many competing arms and legs.

The Arlington Democrat’s 2020 version set clear targets for Virginia to reach economy-wide, net-zero emissions by 2045 in the electric power, transportation, industrial, agricultural, building and infrastructure sectors.

As well, the state Department of Environmental Quality is tasked with developing a comprehensive greenhouse gas emissions inventory to be updated every four years, with oversight given to the State Air Pollution Control Board.

With a strict carbon diet on the horizon, Catherine Hughes, executive director of support services at the Charlottesville hospital, is pleased her nonprofit employer has joined C3. Still, she’s not sure how Sentara can top the energy savings from a decade ago when it replaced its 1903 building with a 600,000 square-foot, LEED-certified structure that’s a model of efficiency.

“We doubled our space but kept our energy usage the same,” Hughes said. “We feel good about what we’ve done and we’re ready to make another big stride.”

LED lighting in its parking lot is a likely next step, but that alone won’t put a huge dent in its Green Business Alliance goal. The hospital’s emissions baseline is 2011, when it moved into its new building.

“We are the 800-pound elephant,” Hughes said about the hospital, a “mini-city” with 176 beds and a staff of roughly 1,800 employees. Switching to solar or maybe wind power is probably “the next big bite out of the pie.”

She’s grateful C3 is exploring virtual power purchase agreements and other solutions that would potentially allow alliance members to collaborate.

“We are in the business of health and have a history of caring,” Hughes said. “But one of my questions is, ‘When is the right time to jump into solar?’”

Sutton made that decision three years ago. Though he expects Tiger Fuel will be operating traditional gas stations for the foreseeable future, he and his brother are also doing their homework on outfitting their businesses with electric vehicle chargers.

“If people start to see us making these big moves with solar, it will create a lot of awareness,” he said, adding customers can watch power output rise or fall via in-store monitors. “People can see that data while waiting in line to get coffee or a biscuit.”

While Sutton touts the guaranteed return on investment and a steady price for power, he unhesitatingly embraces solar as a symbol of the passion he and Taylor carry for the outdoors. 

“We’re sincerely committed to doing good things for the environment and we also have 350 employees we care deeply about,” Sutton said. “You can do this because you want to hug trees — and also because it offers you a solid financial position.”

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth is a longtime energy and environment reporter who has worked for InsideClimate News, Energy Intelligence and Crain Communications. Her groundbreaking dispatches for InsideClimate News from Kalamazoo, Michigan, “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2013. Elizabeth covers the state of Virginia. Her book, "Outpedaling 'The Big C': My Healing Cycle Across America" is available from Bancroft Press.